Your Guide to VOCs in Paint and Cleaning Products

Your Guide to VOCs in Paint and Cleaning Products

9/15/2021 | Brie Welzer

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are common indoor air pollutants that are frequently found in household products and can cause adverse health effects.

Products certified to Green Seal standards must abide by strict limits to VOCs to protect human health. This post provides a quick overview of VOCs, how to choose healthier, greener products, and other tips for reducing your exposure to VOCs.

What Role Do VOCs Play in Products?

Sometimes called oil-based or petroleum-based solvents, many VOCs are included in paints and cleaning products to dissolve or dilute the other ingredients. Some VOCs function as flame retardants that are added to mattresses and building materials, which, as you can guess from their category name, are formulated to slow the spread of fire. Many fragrances are also VOCs, which are intentionally volatile and off-gas at a certain rate so that the scent lingers in the air.

How VOCs Collect Indoors

VOCs have high vapor pressures, which means they evaporate easily – or off-gas – when they come into contact with air molecules. Paint, for example, begins to off-gas when it is applied to a surface, and, depending on its chemical formula, may continue to off-gas for months as the paint completes the curing process.

Studies show that indoor concentrations of VOCs are often up to seven times higher than those outside – commonly a result of applying paints and personal care products, as well as daily home combustion events, such as cooking and heating with gas appliances. VOCs get stuck inside when a room has poor ventilation, as VOCs are added to our space faster than they can escape through a window or HVAC system. Additionally, heavier types of VOCs, called semi-VOCs (SVOCs), are emitted from products and then settle onto surfaces and are absorbed by dust. Inhaling and ingesting this dust is harmful to health, especially for children.

How VOC’s Affect Your Health

Acute inhalation exposure to VOCs can cause coughing, decreased lung function, low energy levels, headaches, and impaired mental focus. Chronic exposure to hazardous VOCs is associated with neurological disorders, including dementia and tremors. The World Health Organization estimates 3.8 million deaths occur each year due to indoor air pollution, including VOCs. The worst offenders include:

  • Formaldehyde
  • Terpenes, toluene
  • Glycol ethers
  • Acetaldehyde
  • Phenol
  • Methylene chloride
  • BTEX benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes (BTEX)
  • Flame retardants – PBDEs

Green Seal strictly limits these and other VOCs in certified products.

How VOCs Affect the Environment

VOCs interact with nitrous oxides in the atmosphere to form ozone — a greenhouse gas that can cause temperature increases when found in lower layers of the atmosphere. Because of this, VOCs also indirectly contribute to the formation of smog and particulate matter.

Cleaning products, paints and coatings, and several other product types are required to have low VOC content if they are sold in California. The Golden State also leads the nation on VOC restrictions in products in part because it’s a critical public health issue for the region: California’s geography and climate leads to greater air pollution than the rest of the nation, especially in urban areas where 95% of its population resides. The U.S. federal government also sets restrictions as a way of enforcing the Clean Air Act.

VOCs in Cleaning Products

VOCs are most often found in cleaning products in the form of solvents and fragrances. Green Seal sets limits on the VOC content of cleaning products that are based on, but even more restrictive than, California’s regulatory limits. Green Seal is more restrictive because our calculations of a product’s total VOCs include fragrances, whereas California’s regulations currently exclude them. This means that many widely available household cleaning products cannot yet meet our standards because they have high concentrations of fragrances, such as when essential oils make up more than 1% of the product.

VOCs in Paints and Coatings

State purchasing laws and the global green building community have greatly increased the demand for low-emitting paint products to address indoor air quality.

In general, low- or zero-VOC paints tend to be water-based and have significantly lower odor than oil/solvent-based paints. Flat (or matte) paints with fewer than 50 grams of VOCs per liter are generally considered to be low-VOC, while a zero-VOC paint is one with fewer than 5 grams per liter. Nonflat paints (such as satin and semi-gloss) are considered low-VOC if they have fewer than 100 grams of VOCs per liter. It’s important to note that the VOC content on the paint label does not include the VOCs added in the paint colorant at the point of sale, which can significantly increase VOC levels.

Green Seal sets limits on VOCs in two ways: content and emissions. We restrict VOC content in the product formula, and we also require an emissions evaluation to verify that the product does not off-gas hazardous chemicals during a specified period after the initial application, providing an indicator of safer air quality for building occupants.

Green Seal certification also restricts the VOC content of colorants added at the point-of-sale. Any colorants used with Green Seal-certified paints cannot cause the final product to exceed the category VOC limit by more than 50 grams.

How to Reduce Your Exposure to VOCs

To protect your health, open windows, turn on a fan, or cover your nose and mouth with a mask or other fabric when applying cleaning products, fragranced products, paints, and coatings.
Whenever possible:

  • Choose fragrance-free products.
  • Choose Green Seal-certified paint, cleaning, and personal care products.
  • Use low-emitting paints and low- or zero-VOC content paints that comply with California Air Resource Board limits.
  • Avoid aerosol products.

By choosing safer paints and cleaning products and taking simple precautions when applying them, you can protect yourself and those around you from the negative health effects of VOCs.